What Is Life Worth? Exploring Biomedical Interventions, Survival, and the Politics of Life

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Abstract

Recent debates about technologies of “life”—medical technologies, such as genomics, pharmaceutical innovations, and reproductive technologies—raise questions about what it means to be human, and our relationship with biomedicine. The articles in this special focus section of Medical Anthropology Quarterly are focused around the “value of life”—be it the economies shaped by biomedical interventions, the contestation of biological definitions of life, or studies which challenge the kind of person on which biomedicine is predicated. The collection seeks to analyze critically the current fascination with biopolitics through empirical studies in sites where biomedical technology or techniques of self-care are not easily accessible or realistic for everyone. Foucault’s work on the “care of the self,” and Nikolas Rose’s proposals about “contemporary biopolitics,” have influenced many recent studies in medical anthropology, but these do not fully resonate with the sites in which we work. Underlying these concepts are practices that have mainly been available to elite groups in society—the “art of living” in ancient Greece was practiced by wealthy men, not women or slaves; and the technologies of optimization and molecularization that Rose argues are at the center of a “contemporary biopolitics” not readily available to most people across the globe. These concepts take for granted an individualized ethos of care, and so we consider how this plays out in locations where alternative moralities shape interactions with biopolitical regimes of care. Thus, we ask, where do the “edges” of biopolitics lie?